I've been thinking a lot about David Foster Wallace lately.
That's ok, I think about David Foster Wallace a lot, a lot of the time. I've been reading his famous book Infinite Jest for a few months now, stopping and starting as I become overwhelmed by the attention required to read it. But I started paying more attention to my thinking a lot about David Foster Wallace when someone else I pay a fair bit of attention to (though only as of recently) also started talking about David Foster Wallace.
Al Burian plays in bands. Good bands. But he also writes a zine which I absolutely fucking love. Please see here. His latest zine, which Brendan very kindly bought me a hardcopy of, contains an interview where he talks about David Foster Wallace. He has also, I seem to recall, reviewed his posthumous work The Pale King, in an earlier zine.
Brendan reckons reading Wallace is like having a hyper nerd write about how smart he is. Which is kinda true. But, where Brendan finds it grating, I find it kind of fascinating. As someone smarter than me said, Wallace doesn't want to show off how smart he is but, rather, show the reader the world he inhabits, for better or for worse.
And that world is truly a breathtaking one. Wallace's wit, his knowledge and most importantly his humour, is so gaspingly varied and, well, clever, that you can't help but be plain old jealous of, not only his work, but also of the very world he inhabits.
Of course, the world Wallace paints is really a pretty awful one. Everyone is alienated from one another. No one really knows how to make their way through life without the help of something or someone. Being lost, it might be argued, is the primary theme to a lot of Wallace's fiction.
Al Burian describes Wallace's fiction as describing "the disorientating effect of living in an information overloaded society", which sounds totally boring but is, because of Wallace's cleverness, incredibly interesting.
This is because, I think, Wallace's ability to not only describe but pin point the anxiety that can come about as a result of living in the current world, and the various things we use to do so. The characters in Infinite Jest (remember i haven't finished it) are all fucked up on something. There are former burglars turned AA converts. There are young genius tennis prodigies who, despite their brilliance, just want to get high as fuck in the basement. There are transgender detectives. Children alienated from parents, parents disgusted by children. All of these people try and deal with the world in various ways. Drugs, television, and maths are all ways of making the infinite wasteland of passing time seem manageable. Of course there's also the ultimate way of dealing with a world that can't be dealt with, that is, to opt out. Suicide plays a minor but important role in Wallace's work. It's always depicted within the context of a grotesque dark humour: the horror of the situation juxtaposed by, for example, the absurd quality of putting your head wrapped in tin foil, in a microwave.
Of course, this all becomes a little more depressing, when we consider Wallace himself committed suicide in 2008. A man who had suffered from depression most of his life, Wallace had opted to try and wean himself off his medications in early 2008. On finding the debilitating illness returned straight away, Wallace returned to his former medication, only to find that it no longer worked. He spent some months in the grip of his worst depression ever before finally killing himself. Wallace's mother describes his illness as being a 'cancer of the soul' which was entirely incurable.
What irks me most about this is, aside from a very clever man being dead and not being able to read any more of his stuff, is the same thing that irks Al Burian. Namely the fact that it is "especially unnerving when really smart people decide to kill themselves." Wallace, to put it bluntly, knew a lot of stuff, and the fact that despite all this, life was too much to bear, is a horrific idea.
Wallace represents, for me, the ability to closely analyse the world, find that it is utterly, completely awful, but to walk away with a funny joke regardless. Infinite Jest should be depressing. But it's hilarious. It's bleak, to be sure, but it offers hope through absurdity. I find that incredibly reassuring.
Al Burian concludes his summary of Wallace by saying: "I don't know...he's a great writer...but I don't know if I'd recommend it. iIm personally trying to keep away from him, actually. In a way he represents, to me, the futility of trying to think your way out of it."
Which, in classic Al Burian fashion, is exactly how I feel about it. I've always felt protected by the idea that we can give things a good hard think and, as a result, things will work out better. Perhaps not perfect, but better. Maybe it's a Platonic hangover, the idea that within the realm of thought (the world of Forms), you can escape the chaos and disorder of the 'real world'.
But Wallace went so far, so deep into the rabbit hole, that not even he could see the joke through the despair any more.
It terrifies Al Burian, and it terrifies me.